Graham Chainey: We are enriched by ordinary people’s acts of heroism

A woman is evacuated from the terrorist attack in the Bataclan theatre, Paris (AP Photo/Thibault Camus).
A woman is evacuated from the terrorist attack in the Bataclan theatre, Paris (AP Photo/Thibault Camus).

So long as the heroes keep appearing when required, one can still retain pride in one’s humanity.

None of them knew what was about to happen. They were ordinary people, doing ordinary things, when exceptional events occurred, but each of them rose immediately to the demands of the moment. They are heroes of our time.

Last weekend at Leytonstone a passer-by, David Pethers, though himself stabbed by the knife-wielding assailant, “went back to get stuck in. I would rather he stabbed me than a kid.”

During last month’s attacks on Paris, there was Zouheir, the security guard who prevented the suicide bombers from entering the Stade de France, where 80,000 were watching the France-Germany game, so preventing far greater carnage. Ludovic Boumbas, Congolese-born, lost his life when he threw himself in front of a girl to save her from the bullets as they sat on the terrace of La Belle Equipe bar. Over at the Bataclan, someone called Bruno saved a woman he didn’t know by hiding her under chairs and shielding her with his body. Michael O’Connor shielded his French girlfriend by playing dead for more than an hour during the attack.

When a pregnant woman climbed out of a window and hung screaming from a ledge, someone called Sebastien crawled out of another window, hung onto a vent, and pulled her to safety.

Nic Alexander, British merchandising manager for the rock band that was performing, although shot, bled to death in silence to avoid the gunmen killing his friends.

Before that, in August, when a terrorist brandished a Kalashnikov on a packed train from Amsterdam to Paris, he was wrestled by four Americans and a Brit. The latter, Chris Norman, observed: “I’d rather die being active, trying to get him down.” President Hollande instantly awarded them all the Legion d’Honneur, saying: “You averted what could have been a true carnage. Your heroism should be an example and a source of inspiration for everyone.”

Before that, during the June attack on the beach at Sousse, various Tunisian staff – a waiter, a paragliding instructor, a swimwear vendor, a hotel entertainment organiser, and others – instinctively formed a human shield to protect holidaymakers from the gunman. “At that moment, it was destiny; it didn’t matter if you got killed or not,” said Yassine Sadkaoui. “We opened our breasts against the bullets,” said Ibrahim al-Ghoul.

Before that, during the January attacks in Paris, Lassana Bathily, from Mali, was hailed as a hero for ushering customers of a kosher supermarket into a walk-in freezer and saving their lives. He was later granted French citizenship.

If we wind back to the events of September 11, 2001, we again find that there were many heroes: police officers and firefighters who died saving the lives of others; passengers on Flight 93 – Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Thomas Burnett, Mark Bingham and others – who wrestled the hijackers; an equities trader on the 104th floor credited with saving 18 lives; and so on. There were 19 terrorists on that day, but hundreds of heroes. Something we learn from this is that the heroes, those who retain their true humanity, always outnumber the terrorists, who have jettisoned theirs. There is a seed of consolation in this. It is a debased word these days: hero.

Too often the world proclaims some “hero” of the football pitch or pop stage, some glamour celebrity. In our narcissistic society, we all star as heroes to ourselves. But true heroism implies the relegation of personal benefit to that of the wider cause, the sacrifice of the individual for the welfare of others.

The call may come during terror attack, or after natural disaster – the Fukushima Fifty who selflessly laboured to prevent nuclear catastrophe in 2011 – or during war – the Schindlers and Wallenbergs, the Szabos and Moulins – or under tyranny and corruption – Anna Politkovskaya, who dared stand up to Putin, innumerable whistleblowers, dissidents and defiers.

So long as the heroes keep appearing when required, one can still retain pride in one’s humanity.